The Irreducible Core of Discipleship

Jesus said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”

Luke 9:23

Don’t let the enormous jpeg above fool you. You haven’t been redirected to an online shopping portal. I put the image there because I want to come clean about my relationship with Amazon.

I’m one of the millions who pay $99 a year to participate in Amazon’s Prime subscription service. Being part of the Prime community buys me access to a whole bunch of streaming music and video content that I’ll never watch. It also guarantees me 2-day delivery on a universe of items that I’ll never buy.

But every year, I keep paying the $99. Sad, huh?

It’s worse than that.

Amazon’s a dangerous place for me to hang out. This is in large part because I’m a sucker for good deals. It’s also because Jeff Bezos and his minions and his machines know how to keep after shoppers until they give in and finally click the big orange “Place your order” button.

The first time it happens it’s eerie. On Tuesday, you leisurely peruse Amazon for a blow dryer and some parakeet food. Then on Thursday, as you are surfing an entirely unrelated website, a great big banner on top of that page will remind you that the Conair dryer and the bird pellets are still available. It’s like – What are the odds of those exact two items showing up on this page? I’m just here to check out the Taylor Swift lyrics, man! 

Rise and shine: The odds are like 100%. Disable your cookies or get used to it.

But there’s another thing the Amazon Borg does to entice you. On the checkout page – this is the point of last return – there is a little link under each product you’re considering. It’s labeled “Save for later.”

This is an accommodation to your conscience. There, at the checkout, you have a flash of insight: Perhaps spending 465 bucks on an NES Classic is not what my wife wants best for me! Perhaps I should consider bread and milk instead! These brief glimmers of logic do sometimes occur.

At the same time, you aren’t ready to completely give up on the idea of playing retro Mario with your card club. So you can’t push Delete.  That would be too drastic, too severe. So you press the other link: Save for later. 

That’s when it starts. The pressure. The countdown. The subtle but steady drift back to that item. You might be able to walk away from Amazon for a little while. Maybe for a day. Maybe even for a week. But you haven’t forgotten. That NES Classic is still there. It’s waiting for you. It needs to be needed. You have a future together.

So you edge closer. You login, click on your saved items and see that console again. It’s playing Siren to your Odysseus.

You try to be resolute. I won’t do it. I wont buy it……

……But, maybe for today, I’ll just put it back in my shopping cart. There’s no harm in that, right? So you execute one quick click, sending the system to your cart, then zoom over to the red X to close the window. 

See, I’m fine.

I’m good.

/awkward smile

/nervous laughter

Except you’re not good. Because this is when the Amazonians turn on the full court press. At some point in the near future, you’ll be receiving an email. It’s plaintive, frank. “You still have items in your shopping cart,” it reads. Open it and you’ll find a big, beautiful picture of that NES classic.

This email is one part reminder of an overdue book report, one part text from an old flame.  There’s something more for you. Something has been left undone. 

You’ve been broken. Resistance is futile. Your browser, knowing full well that the day was coming, is ready for you. It only needs the “a-m-a” before autocompleting the rest of the URL. You race to the shopping cart. You careen into the checkout. You barrel through the two-step verification. And you buy it. All the pressure is released. You can breathe again.

Two days later, you’re lounging on your couch playing 8-bit Nintendo games. Good thing, because your wife’s got you sleeping there, too.

Christians today talk a lot about discipleship. By one recent, totally imaginary statistic, 78% of American Protestant churches refer to disciples, discipling, or discipleship in their congregational mission statements.

That discipleship should be an important church priority is with good reason. The Great Commission of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20) lists “making disciples” as one of the main tasks of the church following his ascension into heaven.

You’d think, then, that believers would have a pretty good idea of what discipleship is about. But as time goes on, it seems, the meaning of

Imagine that you headed over to the info desk at First Hillside Church of Anywhere, USA and you signed up for the weekend Discipleship Retreat. What would you expect your weekend to look like? Maybe you’ll be reading Max Lucado around a campfire. Maybe you’ll be sorting winter coats for a neighborhood clothing drive. Maybe you’ll be attempting a high-ropes course.

Discipleship might mean any of these things. It might mean all of them, it might mean none of them. Feels like we’ve lost track of our definition.

I don’t want to add more to the hopper here. What I want to talk about is what you can’t subtract: Discipleship isn’t discipleship without self-denial.

Jesus laid it out in the scripture above. If anybody wants to follow me and be my disciple, she has to begin by denying herself. Anyone who would come after me must first set aside what he wants, what he craves. Hands must be emptied to make room for the cross to be carried.

When we talk about discipleship in church, we often think about education. And that’s not wrong – embedded in the Great Commission is the imperative to teach. But lots of people learned from Jesus without becoming disciples.

Sometimes discipleship is taken to mean imitating Jesus. And again, that’s a good thing. But there were lots of non-disciples whose actions and words corresponded in some way to Jesus’ proclamations and deeds. Check out the story of the “Rich Young Man” in Mark 10:17-22.

Discipleship absolutely encompasses education and action. But it does not exist without self-denial. Peter noted this as that Rich Young Man, unable to part with his great wealth, walked sadly away from Jesus. “We have left everything to follow you!” Peter exclaims (Mark 10:28).

Look around that circle of disciples. Peter himself had left a fishing business. Andrew, James, and John had walked away from similar careers. Matthew gave up his tax collecting post, a job that – while certainly unpopular with the neighbors – was probably personally lucrative. Simon the Zealot set aside his political passions, Nathaniel had to put his prejudices about Nazarene bumpkins to bed.

We have left everything to follow you!

What about me? What have I left behind?

You can probably sense from my Confessions of an Amazon Primer that I’ve come to a stark realization: I don’t deny myself much of anything at all. Sometimes I delay, but I rarely deny. How about you? We typically talk more about “giving things up” in Lent. But what about the rest of the year? Most of the time, I feeling like we end up Placing The Order.

Discipleship is a very, very high calling. It’s about denying ourselves things. It’s about denying ourselves experiences. It’s about denying ourselves pleasure, gratification, and ease. It’s about denying ourselves entirely. Only when we’ve given up and given away can we really receive what the Master has to share.

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